Book Review: Novice Dragoneer by E.E. Knight
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Series: Book 1 of Dragoneer Academy
Publisher: Ace Books (November 5, 2019)
Length: 512 pages
Novice Dragoneer feels like a book I’ve read before, in one incarnation or another. And if you’ve read a lot of coming-of-age fantasy, books feature magic or warrior schools, or stories about dragon riders, then there’s a good chance this is going to feel very familiar to you too. But that’s certainly not a criticism. I for one love a good adventure that has a bit of everything, and even with its more derivative elements, I found this novel delightfully entertaining.
Our story follows Ileth, a fourteen-year-old orphan who has always dreamed of soaring the skies as a dragon rider. Unfortunately, due to the small stature and stutter, nobody ever thought she would amount to much, and our protagonist often found herself relegated to the kitchens for serving or cleaning work.
But then one day, Ileth is given the chance of a lifetime. After gaining acceptance into the prestigious Dragoneer Academy, she spends the next few years training at the fortress and moving up the ranks. But due to her lowly status in a school mostly attended by cadets from rich and powerful families, it is an uphill battle for Ileth to prove she deserves to be a dragon rider as much as any of them. Trouble, however, keeps finding her, and soon in a political move she is sent to a neighboring kingdom as a dragon-dancer where she makes the acquaintance of an old but venerated dragon with a mysterious past.
All told then, there’s nothing earth-shattering or highly original in Novice Dragoneer, but boy, was it a lot of fun. I was especially enchanted by its early chapters in which we follow Ileth through her dragon rider training. As you know, I love a good fantasy school trope, and this book checks off all the right boxes. We have the scrappy underdog protagonist who is fighting for a coveted position against students who are more privileged, and I also love that the training scenes that involve the requisite unpleasant tasks that all lowly initiates must do as a rite of passage. All the typical roles you would expect were present, including the hard-ass instructors and nasty bullies. Like I said, this is the type of novel where you pretty much know what you’re getting into from the get-go, but nevertheless it offers up a fair amount of enjoyment.
Strangely enough, it was when the story started exploring new territory that it started losing me. Personally, I would have been perfectly happy with more time spent at the academy, but understandably the plot must move on, and so we entered into the later parts of the book that did not appeal to me as much. Pacing was something of an issue, as we experience a slight slump in the middle sections, but bottom line, where the plot saw Ileth dispatched to a foreign land simply was not as interesting to me as the drama in the school setting. That said, one major advantage this part of the story was that it had more dragons!
Speaking of which, hands down the dragons in this book were some of the best highlights. They talk, they fly their riders into battle, and they love to watch human females dance! The ones we get to meet are absolutely charming, and the book definitely picked up in the last third as the story shifts gears once more to follow Ileth as she embarks on a quest to help a dragon.
Indeed, the transitions in Novice Dragoneer are quite distinct. They follow our protagonist as she grows with each section of the novel, so while the early parts feel very Young Adult, by the end of the story we reach a point where adults might find more crossover appeal, since it explores some darker and more mature themes. I was happy with Ileth’s development, the way she grows not only physical but also mentally and in confidence. As she forges new friendships, her interactions with other characters also became more compelling.
All in all, I had a good time with Novice Dragoneer. It’s pretty standard as far as coming-of-age fantasy goes, featuring themes and tropes that won’t be anything new for the experienced genre reader, but it was a solidly enjoyable read in spite of that. Fans of magic school stories will especially take great pleasure in it, and while parts of the story ran overly long, E.E. Knight reined things back in and regained control before the meandering can get too out of hand. Most importantly, the plot and characters have my attention now, and I’ll be looking forward to the sequel.